Humanities & Evolution
The human self—Who will speak for it?
Once without custody of the human self, what will become of the humanities? They will lose all meaning and fade away. And the self, will it be happy under new management? Instead of meekly standing aside while a change of custody takes place, shouldn’t the humanities take on responsibility for checking out the new quarters, and the new terms of care, and raise a stink if they aren’t adequate?
The science’s immediate goal is a conceptual makeover of the self. The humanities would be rewritten in terms of science. The sciences would then account for all material things and all of human nature. The result would be a grand consilience, a uniting of all knowledge, as laid out in the 1998 book “Consilience” by the biologist Edward O. Wilson. (See article “Consilience” in this section).
The wrapper around his offer, naturally, is Darwinism. All our traditional messy human motivations and volitions would be replaced by the clinical principles of natural selection—competition for scarce resources, means of escape from predators, mating strategies, sexual selection, kin selection, all other ways of favoring one’s own genetic line over others to ensure the persistence of one’s own genes in the species’ gene pool. All human motivation and behavior should be reduced to these, the argument goes, because only these would have survived the process by which the human self evolved. The human self would be grounded for the first time on a sound scientific basis.
Inside the wrapper lies the real heart of the new discourse—physical determinism. Physics rules, precisely, and admits no exceptions. Free will therefore cannot exist, it can only be an illusion. Behavior can be driven only by physical causes; conscious experience is merely an epiphenomenon of events taking place in the brain without any power of independent action, like the picture in a camera’s viewfinder. Finally, in fulfillment of man’s ancient dream, all phenomena will be accountable for through one master discourse, physics.
How should this prospect be explored, and the offer responded to? 2011 saw publication of a book of responses by humanities practitioners, under the sponsorship of the National Academy of Humanities. They’re divided on the issue, uncertain how to assess the offer.
I believe the humanities should reject the consilience and just continue about their business. I’m not a professional academic, but that won’t stop me from offering my two cents.
The wrapper, Darwinism.
For all that, Darwinism is a very flimsy theory. It can survive only as long as science’s denial of free will resists challenge. Most of this site is taken up with rebuttals of it and suggestions for how to arrive at alternatives.
The more significant element in the consilience offered by science therefore is scientific determinism. As the resources of the humanities shrink and those of the hard sciences continue to grow, should the humanities yield up human nature to the embrace of scientific materialism? How would the human self fare in the embrace of those who deny free will? What would the consequences of that denial be? What would be the benefits?
Benefits from embracing determinism
We are promised no benefit beyond the satisfaction of knowing we’ve become safe from error. But can we be sure free will does not exist? No, we can’t. In fact, the evidence points the other way.
Proofs we do have free will
It isn’t even coherent. Scientific determinism, or physicalism, claims the following: "Only things that exist physically can be the cause of physical change. Conscious experience may exists but has no physical existence. But our behavior is physical. Therefore conscious experience cannot be a cause of our behavior. What we experience as conscious acts of volition driving behaviors must be an illusion, nothing more than a byproduct of something actually happening in brain chemistry and so, like all other physical happenings, determined."
This obviously wrong for at least three reasons. If consciousness doesn’t have any physical existence science can’t study it, can’t know anything about it, and can’t know whether consciousness can drive behavior or not. Second, if it can’t drive any physical events at all consciousness couldn’t even be known to exist, as scientific determinists admit that it can. And third, they admit physical agents can affect conscious experience, through drugs for example, but claim consciousness can't act back on matter. Why can't interaction take place in both directions? If matter and consciousness can interact in one direction there’s no logical reason why they can’t interact in the other direction too.
Proof from guilt: There’s a lot going on in the brain, all the time. Most of it we’ve never conscious of. But some forces itself into our attention whether we like it or not. Presumably we evolved that way, to be conscious of those things. Guilt, for example. Guilt acts on us to change our behavior. If all our behavior was driven by brain chemistry evolution could have simply built the guilt mechanism into the brain to act on information there. But evolution built guilt into consciousness, and that suggests the causes of behaviors that guilt acts on must lie in consciousness too. If the causes of those behaviors originate in consciousness, then maybe the causes of all our behaviors originate in consciousness. If that’s true, and given that consciousness is immaterial and so inaccessible to science, there’s nothing to contradict our subjective impression of having free will.
Proof from conscious experiences being motivating: Why do we do things? To have something happen in brain chemistry? Sometimes yes, when we feed an urge that we can’t understand the point of. But more often it’s to have a conscious experience, some kind of pleasure. To maximize our pleasure we vary our behavior in ways that increase our pleasure—we eat more ice cream. So our behavior can be driven by conscious experience. We experience this as free will. We could, to demonstrate we do have free will, will ourselves to stop eating ice cream even though we want more. We can play free will against conscious derives. A free-will-conscious-desire explanation of this behavior would be simpler than one based on determinism by purely physical agents. You could say of course that the conscious experience of pleasure exactly matches a chemical imbalance in the brain but then you have to account for why a capacity for conscious desire exactly matching that balance evolved, if it could lead to no consequence.
Urge to enrich conscious experience: we will submit ourselves to training whose only purpose seems to be to give us heightened conscious experience. Examples are trapeze acrobatics, singing, art appreciation. Behaviors involved in acquiring these skills appear to be driven by a desire for a heightening of conscious experience. Why is so little of our behavior driven by causes we fail to understand? Is the close link between self improvement training and conscious experience a coincidence? I don’t think so.
Avoid the philosophy-of-mind discourse
And the discussion is often pitched at a level of sophistication that precludes any relation to experience. Example: In 220 pages of Four Views on Free Will by four professors of philosophy the index finds 24 pages referring to moral responsibility, only one to consciousness. Here’s an extract from this one page. “…it is not obvious and clear that consciousness cannot have a physical basis (in some relevant sense). Similarly, it is not at all uncontentious that the self cannot be composed of a set of events (broadly construed) located in a causally deterministic niche within nature (or perhaps the external world).” Note in each sentence a complex double negative with its meaning largely nullified by meaninglessly broad qualifications within parens. This has the feel of an exhausted field with only professional academics prodding a few cold embers.
The free will wager
One determinist says to another, “What’s the point of deciding whether to do such and such, it’s already determined whether I will or not. It’s just too much trouble to bother. But it sure would be better if I did.” The second determinist replies, “I’ll grant you some virtual free will. It’s not real free will but it’s as if you had free will.” “Gee thanks,” says the first determinist, and he decides to do whatever it is, and things turn out well.
A week later the first determinist calls up the other and says, “This virtual free will is great. How long does it last?” “You dummy,” says the second guy. “That was just a joke. You stayed determined just like before!”
The first determinist puts down the phone and ponders this for a while. Something happened that otherwise wouldn’t have if he hadn’t believed in virtual free will. So it made a difference. “Maybe this virtual free will really does work. Maybe I’ll declare it operating whenever there’s a decision to make I’d rather put off, and afterwards I’ll turn it off again.” But then he says to himself, “Once the virtual free will is turned on, I understand I can choose to turn it off. But how can I choose to turn it on, when it's off? It's as if I've free will all the time even when this virtual free will is turned off.”
Suppose you’re going to write a novel. You might choose to give your characters free will because it makes for a better story. Of course, whichever you choose might be determined even if in writing the story you can imagine what it’s like to have free will. Presumably you can also choose to make your life imitate your art, if that makes for a better story.
Maybe believing we’ve free will trumps believing we’re determined, even if we really are determined. Either way you can’t lose by believing in free will.
Potential costs of determinism
Cost of a break with tradition: Will determinists guarantee that all our humanist and humanities’ traditions can be translated into the discourse of the consilience? Of course not. They’re determinists, they can’t offer such a guarantee. The risk is ours. Is it worth our while to make the enormous investment involved in such a translation, just on the off chance they’re right? No way.
Actually, isn’t that looking at things the wrong way round? Isn’t what motivates them just one more step in the tradition of human conscious speculation. Isn’t that tradition already a consilience that can be offered them for them to fit themselves in?
Here’s how I fit them in this tradition. It’s a tale of three windows. The first window is the whole of conscious experience. Set into that is a much smaller window that looks out onto the non-us world, as reported by our species’ particular sense organs and cognitive capabilities. Set into that secondary window is an even smaller tertiary window where we observe matter falling into patterns we then abstract as science. Scientific materialism is looking through that tertiary window back at the primary window and proposing that everything in that primary window be redefined in terms of what’s apparent only through that tertiary window. Here’s an example of someone doing exactly that, Susan Blackmore quoted in The Myth of Free Will: “lt is possible to live happily and morally without believing in freewill…. As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether– this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But through l cannot prove it, I think it’s true that I don’t.”
Of course if that compulsion were determined you could understand it. But Susan writes as if she’s freely choosing to train herself to believe she’s determined, to not even have conscious experience of a self. Let’s bear her in mind when we wonder what kind of person would offer us a consilience based on scientific determinism.
What kind of a new tradition? As far as I can make out, the only guarantee scientific determinists do make is that we won’t be able to tell the difference between believing in determinism as they do and believing in free will And how they believe in determinism is, the web of material circumstance leading up to present consciousness is so vastly complex that it could never conceivably be comprehended. Here’s how E.O. Wilson puts it: “Because the individual mind cannot be fully known and predicted, the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will.”
But how about in another century or two, when the conviction we’re determined has sunk home and the last scraps of discourse supporting a belief in free will have vanished? Curiously, Wilson conjures up that future for us as he goes on to say “And that is a fortunate circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the mind, imprisoned by fatalism, would slow and deteriorate.” He acknowledges the consequence of humankind losing confidence in free will as imprisonment in fatalism leading to a loss of biological fitness. Could we invite a worse doom!
Self contradictions at the heart of determinism
Determinism involves a "stolen concept": this is the fallacy, identified by Ayn Rand, of making a claim that denies the existence of something essential for the making of the claim. Doesn't judging the validity of determinism necessarily involve free will? I like to expose the stolen concept through a paradox. Of someone who claims to be capable of distinguishing between determinism and free will I ask, "Supposing I give you one bin for things that are determined and another for things that have free will, and you agree to allocate everything in the world to the appropriate bin, in which bin would you put yourself?" Could the judgment to put oneself in the "determined" bin be arrived at without free will?
Infinite regresses: Whatever determinists claim our volition is determined by we can take into account so it no longer determines us. Take Freud's defense mechanisms. Once we recognize how they unconsciously influence our behavior we can bear them in mind and take them into account in future decisions. Our behavior, something physical, changes because of decisions we experience arriving at through conscious mental operations. That these defense mechanism act on us to determine our behavior we can appreciate. But is choosing to incorporate them into the apparatus of our conscious volition also determined? Then what about a decision not to pay any attention to them since whether we will or not incorporate them into our personal wisdom is already determined and can't be affected by an exercise of conscious volition? ls a descent into fatalism determined? A decision to develop a drug to arrest descents info fatalism, must that also be determined? And your thinking about these issues as I raise them, is that also determined?
Wouldn’t a claim of determinism at each of these steps give the impression of increasingly futile efforts to escape an inevitable surrender?
What is free will?
Here’s my conception of it. It requires a dualism of matter and mind such that mind and matter can interact in both directions. Mind does require a material support but, once generated, operations in mind are different from those in matter. Ideas in mind follow a logic based not on physics but on evolution – ideas evolve in mind. Free will is consciousness of this process of ideas evolving. Like evolution in living creatures, this can be a creative process. Decisions arrived at through evolution of ideas in mind can be expressed in matter as memories of mental experiences and as behaviors such as talking.
Physics, not yet having developed any understanding of evolution, cannot comprehend mental processes or assess how different they are from physical processes. As a result science has not yet found any evidence of mind. This “absence of evidence” is taken by scientific determinists as “evidence of absence,” reinforcing their disposition to deny self, mind and free will. And that’s not likely to change as long as they succeed in monopolizing evolutionary theory with the outcome of Darwin’s physicalism. Determinist quotes from Darwin’s Notebooks found online: “the general delusion about free will is obvious...” and “…one doubts existence of free will [because] every action determined by heredity, constitution, example of others or teaching of others.” From Wikipedia, “Inception of Darwin’s theory”: “Darwin's notebooks developed an essentially materialist and deterministic view of human beings, with the conclusions that freewill was an illusion and the brain was mechanistic.” Darwin did not become a physicalist became of the implications of natural selection, he settled on natural selection because he had already become a physicalist. Only physicalist options would have satisfied him. And only such a physicalist theory would win the support of 19th century Positivism. The dice were loaded, and they have remained so ever since.
Winning strategy in response to the offer of consilience